CLEVELAND (UPI) -- Lucy, a little lady from yesterday, may be the key that unlocks the mystery of the beginning of the human species.
Lucy was a small apelike creature who lived in central Ethiopia about three million years ago. Her bones gradually petrifying, as the lake she died by became a dessert.
There she lay until the desert earth finally eroded away and her remains were discovered last fall by Dr. Donald Johanson, curator of anthropology at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History.
Since then he and other scientists have begun the long labor- of study and intuition that eventually may nail down Lucy's place in the patchy tapestry of human evolution.
"This is fantastic, really," Johanson said. "We have never before had so much of one individual to study.
Now we'll be able to go back over material discovered over the past 40, 80, 100 years and reevaluate it.
"Never before have we known positively, so far back in time, that this type of a leg was on an animal that had that type of arm, for instance."
Johanson has Lucy's remains -much of the spine and ribs, parts of both arms and both legs, the pelvis and some skull fragments -- for five years, after which they go back to the Ethiopian government.
Lucy surfaced near Hadar in the Afar district of. Ethiopia along the East Africa Rift system, currently a hotbed of anthropological study that Johanson calls "the hominid rush."
Site research indicates Lucy died on the shore of a prehistoric lake, sinking quickly into sand or quicksand where her bones fossilized. An upheaval moved her grave to the top of a hill where erosion finally revealed her to the two scientists.
"Had we gone around the hill the other way, or had we gone 10 years ago or 10 years from now, we would not have found her," Johanson said.
The site also yielded fossilized turtle and crocodile eggs and a crab claw from the same time bed as Lucy.
Johnason feels she and her kind probably ate seafood. Lucy, named by members of the expedition who knew Johanson was a Beatles' fan who regularly played the song "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds," is believed to have-died late in her teens. She apparently could stand erect, or nearly so.
Study of the bones of her right wrist and hand may shed new light on the early development of man's opposable thumb and grasping ability; a major point because most experts feel the hand led to toolmaking and the carrying of objects, setting up a feedback system that hastened brain development and upright walking to produce true man.
"Who is she?" Johanson asked. "It's too early to answer that. She looks more like Australopithecus (erect apeman) rather than genus homo."
All he will say now is that she was a hominid man, his 'ancestors and relatives. Some authorities believe the hominidsgo back 12 to 14 million-years.
She and her people may have chipped stones into tool shapes. Johanson reported "a tantalizing bit of evidence" of tool manufacture from the site, a hint that man may have been a tool maker and user from his earliest days on earth.
"We have four to five more years' work there yet. We are still in phase one, so to speak. We have not yet done any real excavation, just surface study and sifting," he said.
The researchers found three jawbone-tooth -fossils just a month before Lucy turned up. They also were three, possibly four, million years old and Johanson believes they definitely are from within the genus homo, as modern man.
"The small size of the teeth in these jawbones leads us to hypothesize,that the genus homo was eating meat and probably using tools, perhaps bones, to kill animals three to four million years ago," he said. It's possible that two different types of primitive man or near-man were living together.
However, he said,'it is already clear that "the limits of modern man can.be traced back further than we thought. Some current thinking is going to have to be revised."
Other fossils turned up in the same stratum at Hadar include pigs, elephants, hippopotami, rhinoceros, three-toed horses, giraffes, an otter the size of a black bear, and carnivores including saber-toothed cats. The type of remains is consistent with the three- million-year-old date.
Lucy's remains were near a layer, of basalt to which potassium argon dating was applied, and that also computed out to three million years, plus or minus 250,000. Hadar is just northward, up the rift system, from other major east African finds; the Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania', where Louis and Mary Leakey found million-year-old Australopithecus; and Lake Rudolph on the Kenya-Ethiopia border where their son Richard is turning up one-to-three-million-year-old material.